Jeff Johnson served in the military for six years and then moved to Washington, D.C., where he found work in the construction industry. After suffering serious injuries in a robbery, however, he lost his job and became homeless. Johnson applied for many entry-level positions without success, and he now suspects why: There was a telltale black mark on his paperwork.
“If employers saw the address of a [homeless] shelter, they would say I am on drugs or have a mental illness,” he said. “A lot of people look down at people like myself. So I gave up hope.”
Johnson’s plight is not unusual, as countless homeless people across the nation find themselves shut out of the workforce when potential employers spot their address — or the lack of one. At least there’s a simple solution: Employers could just stop asking for this information in the early stages of the application process.
As part of a recent study, I reviewed the online application forms for 40 of the nation’s largest low-wage employers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Starbucks Corp. and Target Corp. Each requires applicants to provide an address, and prevents them from proceeding to the next step without registering one.
I also conducted dozens of detailed interviews with homeless individuals and, in collaboration with Trisha Matthieu of Feeding America, surveyed 2,339 people living in poverty across the country. While the homeless face many challenges, respondents frequently referred to discrimination based on homeless status as a significant hardship. One homeless job applicant in New Haven commented, “Everyone uses the shelter address but the moment [employers] see that . . . there is a red flag .... No ... there is a black flag on your resume.”
Other surveys have reported similar results. Veterans in one study identified the requirement of a permanent address and employers’ distrust of people residing in temporary shelters as a considerable barrier to attaining self-sufficiency. The National Coalition for the Homeless reported in 2014 that 70.4% of homeless respondents felt that they had been discriminated against by private businesses based on housing status.
And these are more than mere suspicions. “Once employers find out that a job applicant lives in a homeless shelter, so many have told me that they can’t hire them,” said Glynn Coleman, an employment specialist at the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles. “Several employers refuse to engage with our residents if they don’t have an address or reside on skid row.”
Employers of course deserve to know where their workers live, if only to find them in an emergency or conduct background checks. But there’s no good reason for them to require an address on initial applications. Employers rarely send applicants paperwork or contact them with an urgent matter before they hire them. Besides, employers almost always contact applicants through email.
Nor do employers need an address to make sure applicants could feasibly arrive at work on time. Applicants who apply for jobs from which they can be fired at will know that they must be prompt, regardless of where they reside. Even without an address, employers can contact former managers to assess the applicant’s reliability and stability.
Employers might also believe that homelessness is a proxy for a host of negative qualities, like addiction to banned substances. But research consistently indicates that the leading causes of homelessness include lack of affordable housing and domestic violence (hardly reasons to rule out an applicant). And employers can specify on applications, as many already do, that employment is contingent upon passing a drug test or background check.
It’s now a progressive goal to help criminal offenders re-enter society through so-called Ban the Box policies. (That’s a reference to the box applicants are asked to check if they have been convicted of a crime.) Employers, the theory goes, should let applicants demonstrate their qualifications before asking about their records. Shouldn’t homeless applicants likewise have a chance to prove themselves before revealing their lack of address? Ban the Address would encourage homeless individuals to search for work without the threat of automatic disqualification.
Employers might now be ignoring the best candidates. People who have lost their homes are often conscientious and reliable employees, and even the chronically homeless can excel at work with appropriate support and training. By hiring homeless individuals, employers can also show that they are part of the solution to a pressing social problem.
When Target and Wal-Mart eliminated inquiries about criminal record history from initial job applications, other businesses followed suit. A similar push to Ban the Address would give homeless job applicants like Jeff Johnson hope of obtaining employment and getting off the streets — an outcome that businesses should support by making an eminently simple change.
Sarah Golabek-Goldman is a recent JD-MBA graduate of Yale Law School and the Yale School of Management. She will publish an article on this subject, “Ban the Address Combating Employment Discrimination Against the Homeless,” in the spring edition of the Yale Law Journal.